New French immersion system still a work in progress, UGDSB says

The Upper Grand District School Board has capped enrollment in French immersion this year, but the program will continue to be reviewed throughout the next school year trustees and administrators say. Some parents are frustrated with how the new system was rolled out.

Parents with children just entering system frustrated by lottery system

The Upper Grand District School Board has capped enrollment for French immersion this year, which some parents say is unfair. (CBC)

The school Martha Van Berkel would like her daughter to attend this fall is just a four minute walk from her Guelph home.

But because Van Berkel wants to put her daughter, Ruth, into French immersion, she won't know until next week if her daughter will attend their neighbourhood school with her best friend who lives just up the street, or if she'll be sent to another school.

That's because the Upper Grand District School Board has capped enrollment for French immersion this year. Each school has its own cap, with children who already have older siblings in the program given priority to those spaces.

Since Van Berkel's family is new to the system, her daughter is in limbo until Feb. 28 when they'll be told which school Ruth will attend. If she doesn't get into the school near her home, she will have the option of going to a holding school for her first year of kindergarten.

I really wish I could rest assured and know where my kid was going to school.- Martha Van Berkel , parent

At a recent board meeting, it was announced parents with kids already in system can "rest assured" the siblings would get in this fall, Van Berkel said.

"And I was sitting there thinking to myself, I really wish I could 'rest assured' and know where my kid was going to school," she said.

"I wish I didn't have to stress about whether I was going to have a conversation with my daughter about whether she was going to be able to go to school with her best friend who lives down the road."

Martha Van Berkel and her family are waiting to hear if their oldest child, Ruth, will get into French immersion at the school that is a four minute walk from their Guelph home. If she doesn't, Ruth will have the option to go to a holding school, but she'd need to ride a school bus to get there. (Contributed by: Martha Van Berkel)

'He may be denied access'

Van Berkel is not alone in feeling stressed about French immersion. Jessica Plourde wrote to CBC K-W to say she moved to Fergus last summer specifically because there was a French immersion program.

"Despite having enrolled him in the program on time, he may be denied access if his name isn't one of the lucky ones drawn," she said of the process, which the school board calls "random selection" but parents refer to as a lottery.

At James McQueen Public School in Fergus, 56 students signed up for 50 spots. There is no holding school in Fergus; students are placed on a wait list and will be allowed into the program if any students leave French immersion before the start of senior kindergarten.

"I find this an unacceptable way to deliver government programs and am incredibly upset that my children may not get to attend French immersion, as I did, despite all the benefits of bilingualism," Plourde wrote.

76 Guelph children may go to holding school

With French immersion growing in popularity in Guelph and throughout the board, it's been hard for administration to keep up.

The board did an extensive review of French immersion in 2015 and decided it would have to cap the numbers of students.

The cap for all of Guelph is 349 spots. There were 423 on-time registrations for those spots.

That means 76 children will go to a holding school in September while the board completes boundary reviews, said Peter LeBlanc, the board's French as a second language lead.

Hear more from Peter LeBlanc on CBC K-W's The Morning Edition with host Craig Norris:

A boundary review – which could potentially put French immersion into a school in the city's west end where there is no program currently – could free up spots in other areas of the city, but the risk remains the board may not be able to free up enough space for every single child who signed up, LeBlanc said.

"The reality is it could be that there is no place for them in French immersion and in their second year of kindergarten... their senior kindergarten year, they would go back to their home English school," LeBlanc said. 

Meeting community's needs

School board trustee Linda Busuttil regularly hears from parents like Van Berkel and Plourde, concerned about the future of French immersion.

"It's not about French or English, it's about meeting the community's needs," Busuttil, who in addition to her role as a Guelph trustee, is also an advocate for French immersion.

"We need to embrace the second language as part of learning and who we are," she said in an interview.

Hear a recent interview with Busuttil:

One reason the Upper Grand District School Board had to consider a cap is because there are not enough qualified French teachers to currently expand the program any further.

It's an issue other school boards across the province – including the Waterloo Region District School Board – have told the Ministry of Education needs addressing.

Busuttil said the Upper Grand District School Board has been advocating for a labour market partnership agreement, which would see the province, the school boards, the unions and the teachers colleges work together and answer the question: How do we solve the problem of not having enough French teachers?

It's not about French or English, it's about meeting the community's needs.- Linda Busuttil , trustee with the Upper Grand District School Board

"That whole initiative came from our school board saying, it's not good enough to just write to the minister and say, 'Oh, you've got to fix the problem.' We proactively said, 'And here's the tool by which we're going to do this,'" Busuttil said.

As well, she said staff have been directed to look at teachers already in the system. She said she knows of one fluent French speaking teacher who works at an English school because she wants to be able to walk to work.

"It's not only about recruiting new teachers, in terms of human resources. We've also asked our staff to look at retention. Are there teachers that are leaving who teach French? And also, [are there] teachers who are already in our system who are qualified and able to teach French that aren't teaching French," she said. 

The Upper Grand District School Board says it will do annual reviews its French immersion program to best serve students. (Jean-Christophe/AFP/Getty Images)

Ongoing process

Both Busuttil and LeBlanc said making the system work is an ongoing process and they want parents to continue to engage with the board.

"Recognizing the feedback that we have received, we have built a process that provides an annual review," LeBlanc said, adding the board will make adjustments to the program as needed.

Busuttil said the next year will require a lot of communication and decisions to get as many students into French immersion as possible in Guelph.

"Let's go through this process, put them in a holding school, and now we're going to figure out where can we find place for a sustainable program," she said.

Van Berkel and Plourde will learn where their children will go to school next week. Plourde said she's keeping her fingers crossed her son gets in, "but with a bit of guilt because if he gets in, that means some other child doesn't.

"It shouldn't be that way."


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